In Praise of Mentors
We should all be so fortunate to have or have had a great mentor. They make learning to fly fish so much easier and more fun. We should all strive to be good mentors once we are at a point where we can be effective mentors. Fly fishing has a pretty substantial learning curve associated with it. Great mentors, and I've been fortunate enough to have a few, can greatly smooth out that learning curve.
I got into fly fishing when I was eighteen years old. It seemed like the thing to do as I was going to Platteville for college and trout streams abound in the area. I grew up in an area of Wisconsin nearly devoid of a trout. I had caught but a few trout in my life, all of those were on worms in northern Wisconsin streams. By eighteen, I was a pretty big fisherman and fished pretty much anything that swam in warmwater lakes and the turbid rivers in our area. Nobody will ever mistake the chronically turbid Crawfish and Maunesha Rivers for trout streams. I didn't know squat about fly fishing. Fortunately, I knew somebody that did.
I was probably one of the few that got into fly tying before I really fly fished, at least for anything other than Creek Chubs in the aptly named Mud Creek that was near our home. George Close was my Great Uncle, his wife Betty, my grandmother's sister. In that summer before college, I learned enough fly tying to tie some really crude nymphs and Woolly Worms. I built my first fly rod, an 8-foot 6-inch Sage RPL that I still fish to this day. And I learned a bit about how to cast and what to look for on stream all with help from Great Uncle George.
I would like to say that my introduction to fly fishing was seamless and I picked it up immediately but that would be a huge lie. I struggled mightily. I think it took me four trips before I hooked into a few stocked Brown Trout. And that only happened because an older gentleman observed my struggles and took pity on me. He set me up with a scud pattern he had tied, showed me how and where to drift my nymph through a riffle that dropped into a pool, and watched me catch my first trout on a fly. With a little help, I hooked my first couple of browns and boy did I feel accomplished! We all have to start somewhere.
Almost all of us have similar experiences. The fly fishing learning curve is pretty steep and there are a lot of moving parts. It is not easy but few things worth doing are easy. Thankfully, I had plenty of help in that journey as did folks like George Close, one of my mentors. George had fly fished for trout all along but for many years, he did more musky fishing with "gear", trolling for Lake Michigan salmon, and field trialing his Brittany's than he did trout fishing. He was always a guy that really got into things. He was really into fly fishing.
George too had his mentors, guys that helped him learn the Wolf River - a place where they built a cabin and spent a lot of time - and the intricacies of river's hatches. The Wolf was once, the river in Wisconsin. It is home to Wisconsin's first Trout Unlimited chapter. It is still a pretty good trout fishery and still is quite seasonal as it had always been, though today, in most years the seasons are a little more condensed. While the Wolf maybe is not what it used to be - many claim it to be the first trout stream victim of climate change - it can still be very good trout river. It still has some of the best hatches in Wisconsin and the trout grow large on the abundant hatches and forage fishes. Depending upon the year, the trout find coldwater refuges by mid-June or so and Smallmouth Bass take over the river. There is currently - and probably has been for decades - a great summer Smallmouth Bass fishery but only until relatively recently have Smallmouth Bass been something us fly angler have chased in any numbers. I prefer to think of the excellent mid-summer the Smallmouth Bass fishing as a feature, not a shortcoming of the river. The sulphur and Brown Drake hatches are still legendary and something serious Wisconsin fly anglers have to experience at least once.
Cap Beuttner and Ed Haaga were two of the deans of the Wolf River. Cap owned the fly shop on the river and Ed was his main tyer. The history of trout fishing on the Wolf is probably as rich as for any river in Wisconsin, except maybe the Bois Brule - the "River of Presidents". But seriously, who really gives a shit about Calvin Coolidge? (Sorry, Brule guys...but it is true - Silent Cal was a dud.) Flies from the Wolf River are still used today and others are an interesting piece of history. Cap and Ed were developing patterns for the Wolf River, particularly the famed Brown Drake (Ephemera simulans) hatch. Cap's Hair-wing or the Hair-wing Adams - tied and developed by Ed Haaga and the Close Carpet Fly, one of the earlier surface film dry flies are two flies that solved problems of the day and are still used today. I look at some of Ed Haaga's flies daily as they are in a fly box near my favorite chair.
For a number of other great Wisconsin original fly patterns, see Classic Wisconsin Fly Patterns.
After college, I worked a job at the University of Wisconsin that allowed me to have pretty free weekends and often work four, ten (or more) hour days and have a long weekend to camp and fish. In the mid-1990's, the West Fork Sports Club in Avalanche was the place to be. It is what George Close had told me - head to the Driftless, set up camp and learn the streams around Avalanche. In doing so, I found and befriended / was befriended by my favorite curmudgeon, Bob Blumreich (Silver Doctor Fly Fishing).
"Back in the day", the Driftless had a lot fewer guides and the world was a bit of a different place. This internet thing was a mere fledgling. I had an early site, remnants of it are still at FlyFishingWisconsin.com, and the other Wisconsin fly fishing site is still active, the Wisconsin Fly Fishing page run by Patrick Hager. The internet was a different world. I taught myself HTML, Facebook was a decade and a half away, and we were mostly on dial-up internet (ask those over 45 or so). There was no Driftless Angler but Dennis Graupe had a fly shop in Coon Valley for a time, Viroqua was a trout town but not THE trout town, and there seemed to be a lot fewer places to fish than there are today. I sound really old...
But Avalanche was the place to be. So most weekends, when I wasn't exploring other waters, I was camped out at Avalanche. Soon, camped out at Avalanche meant that Bob and I would fish together, talk trout, tie flies, and share campfire stories. I mostly listened. There were certainly a lot of voices around the campground and many great anglers. They all listened to Bob. Or at least the smart ones did. It really was a great time and place to learn to fly fish.
By this time, I was four years into fly fishing but the addition had fully taken hold of me. I went from fishing relatively frequently in college to all the time after college - a hundred plus days a year. There is no better piece of advice about how to become a better angler than that you need to fish and more is most certainly better. I would have probably learned a lot on my own - and I did learn a lot on my own. You fish 100 days a year, you are bound to learn something. However, I can say that I learned more from George Close and Bob Blumreich than anyone else. I became a better caster and fly tyer. I learned about the hatches and how to best fish each of them. I learned where and more importantly when to fish. I went from being a fairly decent fly angler to a really good one. I had a lot of help along the way.
Great mentors tend to have a good bit of experience but most importantly, they are willing to share much of it. I think to that day on the Blue River when I caught my first trout on a fly and the unknown guy that helped me do it. I think about it when I see an obvious newbie struggling. I try to do what I can to give back - take younger folks out after work days, volunteer as a "guide" for the Women's fly fishing clinics, and do what I can to help others. I once needed that help too.
Raise a toast to mentors. It is fun to reminisce about the good old days where learning happened quickly and often - we had a lot to learn, as do others now. So thanks to George and to Bob and to all those that helped you and others along the way. We should all strive to be helpful mentors that are willing to share our knowledge and experiences. Think about how others helped you.